What is cultural Appropriation ?
Cultural appropriation is when elements of a minority culture are exploited, most commonly for white benefit. It involves taking traditional practises and artefacts without permission.
Cultural appropriation has its roots in colonialism and orientalism, where powers extracted booty from the East and Africa.
For example, flee markets and world fairs like that in Paris 1900, sold african masks and eastern memorabilia. These inspired the locale, and artists drew on these minority influences. Who’s to say this is necessarily bad? Artistic greats like Picasso, Gauguin, and even Kirchner all drew on African masks. Where this gets iffy for me, is when you contemplate why western artists using minority styles are so much more successful than the authentic artists from which they ‘borrowed’ tropes. In the grand scheme, this artistic melting of styles did a lot more cultural good than bad, and exposed a western audience to a world outside of the representational cannon. However, what this history did do, is establish ‘primitive’ cultures as sexy and trendy, and this plays a role in the 21st century debate.
Is it actually offensive ?
I think we can all agree that black face is wrong. If you can understand why it is wrong, you understand the argument of how cultural appropriation is offensive. This debate came back into the public eye when Rachel Dolezal was exposed as not being the african american woman she claimed to be. She sees race to be a social construct, which has elements of truth, and identifies as being black. The pretty disgraceful part of the story is that she lied about hate crimes against her to gain her position as the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the whole time just being a white woman with a spray tan and a perm.
The Rachel Dolezal case brought to light the idea that white people want to be black without really being black.
Azealia Banks had an interesting insight on the subject. Don’t get me wrong, Azealia Banks is a terrible terrible person, and has made incredibly racist comments, for example calling Zayn Maliks mum a ‘dirty refugee’. However, her comments on Iggy Azealea’s success, who is an objectively bad musician and rapper, I think hold some real truth :
The message to white kids,“is, ‘You’re great. You’re amazing. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created yourself.’”
I think this is incredibly easy to sympathise with. Sure, in some cases it might not be true (like for example the talent of rappers like eminem), but, to me at least, its a very understandable line of thought.
Allure Magazine published an article entitled ‘You (Yes, you) Can Have an Afro. Even if you have straight hair’ They used a white model, and reminded me of Banks’ comment above. To me, the most shocking thing about this was that Black women are continually slammed for having afros, being told to not wear their hair out in the workplace because its ‘unprofessional’ ( a policy thats recently been repealed in many cases). Yet, when a white woman wears it its fashionable. This argument is also what challenges the use of gelled baby hairs, which also became a ‘trend’ in recent years. Again, this was something that is practical on black hair, and is labelled ‘rachet’, but on a white model it becomes high fashion.
Kylie Jenner wore cornrows in her instagram, and many fashion magazine dubbed as ‘boxer braids’ and called it a new trend. The fact is, cornrows have been in black culture for thousands of years. Braids were used in tribe culture to show individuality, and were used to communicate messages between slaves, either symbols of hope or signal when they’re going to escape. Kylie Jenner’s hair was beautifully critiqued by Amandla Stenberg. She highlighted how Kylie uses black styles for her personal gain, without showing any interest in true black culture.
There are countless more examples, from Katy Perry’s various music videos, to gigi Hadid’s afro Vogue Italia shoot. Fashion teaches us that we want the style without the history, and I think the outrage around this is perfectly justified. For me, the biggest issue is giving these platforms to white women with a kimono on instead of an asian model, and your friend who got cornrows on holiday in Greece is pretty insignificant . Personally, I wouldn’t get box braids. That said I wouldn’t have a problem with any of my friends getting them, none of whom with a big social platform. Its this teaching a wider audience of young ethnic kids that “you don’t have shit” that is a problem in popular culture.
Why are white people so offended by it ?
Sure, the intention of this ‘teaching’ is always debatable. There is very convincing arguments for sharing cultures, and not emphasising divisions. To me, this is valid, but idealist ,and the ability to say “I’m race blind” or “it’s appreciation” is an incredibly privileged standpoint, and I have only ever heard this from white people.
What continues to shock me, is when white people respond to black or ethnic people saying “that’s offensive” with “no it’s not”. It baffles me why white people are so outraged and passionate about their right to wear cornrows.
Perhaps its part of the new counter-PC movement, and people feel these issues are made up by overly sensitive millennials. The whole ‘snowflake’ thing, and the perceived need to be offended by something or identify with a minority probably contributes to the push back.
We’ve learnt from Trump and Brexit that the poor, genuinely suffering, white population blames ethnic groups for their hardship, so they lash out at them. Look at any facebook comment thread on cultural appropriation and you’ll see the real rage of white people on the subject, which seems totally disproportionate. These are people that feel their representation in politics have been replaced by an obsession with black rights, and it makes sense that they would feel attacked by these opinions.
Also, I think a lot of white people are just purely defensive about it because they think it’s cool and dont want to think about why they really think its cool. There’s a video on youtube that went viral of a white man with dreads adamantly justifying his hair when challenged by a black student. I watched it thinking – the audacity of this boy to talk down to this girl! But I’m sure he just felt a little embarrassed, and would hate to think something that makes him feel good about himself was deeply offending other people, let alone a whole race.
To me, the passionate opposition is a perfect example of white privilege. For centuries, the dominant races have been imposing restriction and power on minority groups, and to this day black people are less likely to be employed, more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness, and less likely to make higher incomes. White people, I find, struggle to comprehend this type of oppression because they simply can’t see it happening; it’s this phenomena that prompts people to say ‘racism doesn’t exist anymore’. As a group, we are used to having opportunities, so the idea of being told ‘you can’t do that’ is completely outrageous. If we can take that outrage at being barred from something, your rap career or hair-goals, and imagine what its like for that outrage, that closed door, to be part of daily life for a person of colour, maybe we can use this debate for a greater understanding of discrimination in society.